THIS TRAIN: THE GOSPEL SESSIONS
When Eric Essix’s mother Imogene passed away in 2004, the veteran guitarist took a break from his prolific output of popular jazz recordings and Southern-themed projects and rekindled his love for the gospel music he grew up with on Abide With Me, released in 2006. In addition to experiencing God’s comfort during this time of grieving, the Alabama native – who launched his recording career in the early 90s’s – found that immersing himself in the “joyful noise” of church songs, he could focus on something other than the reality of her being gone.
Imogene would no doubt enjoy This Train: The Gospel Sessions, the guitarist’s deeply soulful, passionately joyous and exuberantly grooving new album featuring fresh contemporary interpretations of traditional gospel songs. It was recorded at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, home to sessions by everyone from Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Otis Redding to Wilson Pickett, Little Richard and Jerry Reed. It was Eric’s first time back since he recorded his 2000 album Southbound there. Harkening back to a time before legendary fusion group Weather Report steered his career in a jazzier direction, the 15 tracks are classic pieces that he either sang in choirs growing up in the Southern Baptist and later Seventh Day Adventist church or performed in his teens and early 20s, as bass vocalist in The Kings Men, a male gospel quintet.
Culling the set list down from 50 pieces originally chosen with his longtime production team of Daniel Beard and Grammy Nominee, Kelvin Wooten, Eric creates a unique thematic arc for his dynamic arrangements, which run the spiritual-emotional gamut from slow simmering, prayerful ballads (“I Know I’ve Been Changed,” “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen”) to the hand clappin’, knee slappin’ shout outs “Jesus Gave Me Water” (popularized by Sam Cooke & The Soul Stirrers) and ‘Oh Happy Day” (a massive pop hit for the Edwin Hawkins Singers in 1967).
“The album starts out with Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s ‘This Train,’ and includes Eric’s heartfelt interpretations of ‘Jesus Loves The Little Children’, ‘Precious Lord’, ‘I’m on My Way to Canaan’s Land’ and the album’s only original tune, a spontaneous invention called ‘Shout!’. The set contains everything from a cappella interludes by Mary Ann and China Pettway (Quilters Of Gees Bend) and upbeat gospel quartet sounds made popular by groups like The Dixie Hummingbirds and Mighty Clouds of Joy, to ‘The Blood’ by Andrae Crouch from the 70s. “It’s like a full sweep of my early life listening to gospel music”, Eric says.
Imogene Essix would also love the guest list of top gospel vocalists that Eric invited to help him share the joy, including former American Idol winner (and fellow Birmingham native) Ruben Studdard (“The Blood”), the legendary Candi Staton (“I Know I’ve Been Changed”), Belinda Peoples (“This Train”), Kevin Whalum (“Canaan’s Land”), The Birmingham Sunlights (“Jesus Gave Me Water”/”I Know I’ve Been Changed”/”I Surrender All”), Jason Eskridge (“Oh Happy Day”) and Kaleah Wooten (“Jesus Loves The Little Children”/”Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior”).
On the instrumental side, Grammy winning urban jazz and gospel saxophone great Kirk Whalum guests on “The Blood,” ensembling with Eric’s longtime core band of Kelvin Wooten (organ, piano, Wurlitzer piano, Glockenspiel), Sean Michael Ray (bass) and drummer Marcus Finnie – who lay the foundation for the whole project.
Ironically, Eric started 2016 convinced that after 22 previous recordings, he was done making records for at least a year. He just wasn’t feeling the inspiration. But God obviously had other plans. At one point, Beard, former house engineer at FAME called Eric and suggested he try a blues album. After days of discussions with both Kelvin and Daniel, Eric responded that gospel music was really at his core – that he would emerge from his brief exile if he could do a traditional gospel album.
“The idea of doing a gospel recording in this style was exciting to me,” the guitarist says. “Once we got rolling, the challenge was creating arrangements that would maintain a traditional sound and feel but also allow me to infuse my personality and a modern day sensibility. Working with all these great musicians and singers, I enjoyed the opportunity to insert myself into the spirit that created these songs many years ago.
“When we started the project at FAME,” he adds, “we brought everyone together and had a season of prayer before we hit a single note. We asked God to come into our presence and touch each one of us so that we could speak for Him through our instruments and praise Him. We prayed before each session, even in creating the early demos, that God would always be at the center of everything we did.”